Text Size

A Synthetic Biology Tool Kit for Human Missions Outside Low Earth Orbit

Principal Investigators: Lynn J. Rothschild (SGE), John Mulligan (Factory Cells, Inc.), Jesse Palmer (EAP/SGE)


Human missions outside low earth orbit will require on-site synthesis of materials to reduce mass requirements. In addition, any long-term mission is likely to encounter unexpected problems that require tools or materials that were not included in mission planning.

Current Status

Currently if genetic engineered organisms are used in space, the molecular engineering is done prior to launch. Problem solving on missions relies on the materials and capabilities that are carried on the mission. More likely, products are brought into space rather than synthesis capability.


Synthetic biology is the design and construction of new biological functions and systems not found in nature. Just thinkā€¦.

Biological tools can be used to synthesize many materials on site as they are needed, reducing mission weight and storage requirements for unstable materials.

DNA can carry huge amounts of information and functional capabilities in an extremely low-weight form. Simple molecular biology tools could be used to create new tools on-site, during a mission using recipes developed on earth in response to unexpected mission needs

What we envision

A 5 kilogram kit could replace hundreds of kilograms of materials on a long term mission. On-site supply of unstable materials could reduce weight and complexity of storage requirements for the mission. An Apollo 13-like capability to respond to unknown problems could make the difference between success and failure on a mission where timely resupply is impossible

  1. Create a flexible synthetic biology tool kit that can be used to supply a large variety of materials for the mission
  2. Carry an diverse set of genes with the widest possible range of capabilities
  3. When the unexpected occurs, develop solutions on earth using the synthetic biology kit, the gene set and other flexible manufacturing capabilities included on the mission
  4. Transmit a recipe to the mission
  5. Crew members use the kit to create new materials that will help them deal with the problem.